The Knoxville News Sentinel said its reporter was prevented from participating in a Knox County, Tennessee, health department press briefing about the county’s COVID-19 response on May 8, 2020, in apparent retaliation for his reporting.
Reporter Vincent Gabrielle had been attending the daily Zoom press briefings without incident, the Sentinel reported, recently pressing health officials to release more of the data informing the county’s reopening decisions following the lockdown to curb the spread of the pandemic.
The day before the briefing, the Sentinel published an article by Gabrielle stating that the county had repeatedly failed to explain the criteria used to evaluate the county’s reopening readiness.
On May 8, Gabrielle was unable to access the press briefing when he called in, according to the Sentinel. When he asked the health department’s media contact via text whether there had been a technical problem with the call, a representative referred him to county communications director Mike Donila.
Donila told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker via email that Gabrielle had not been permitted to participate through the Zoom portal because of “his obnoxious, disrespectful and rude behavior” toward fellow reporters and health department members.
He maintained, however, that Gabrielle had not been barred from the press conference, as he could have still watched a livestream on Facebook or the health department website, and could have submitted questions through the social media platform or via email.
"The Zoom portal is a courtesy we offer — and one we can stop at any time — and not a right,” Donila said.
Donila also noted that other Sentinel reporters and executive editor Joel Christopher had been allowed into the Zoom meeting and had had the opportunity to ask questions.
Christopher denied Donila’s claim that other journalists from the outlet had been able to effectively participate.
He told the Tracker that when another Sentinel reporter had tried to access the Zoom meeting he was “locked out” without explanation. By the time Christopher was able to get into the call, he did not have time to get and submit Gabrielle’s questions before the briefing ended.
Christopher said that Donila’s assertions were “odd” and questioned why Donila would bother to ban Gabrielle if he didn’t believe it would have a practical effect on Gabrielle’s ability to participate in the briefing.
Donila denied Christopher’s claims, maintaining that not only had the outlet’s staff never lost their ability to ask questions, they had deliberately refused to submit any out of apparent solidarity with Gabrielle.
Donila had told the outlet that Gabrielle’s reporting — which he described to the paper as “constantly riddled with half-truths, missing facts and a constant false narrative" — was also a reason why he’d been denied access to the Zoom call.
Donila told the Tracker that he stands by his comments on Gabrielle’s reporting but indicated that Gabrielle’s reporting was not the reason behind barring him. He also rejected the Sentinel’s claims that Gabrielle was barred because of his tough questioning of the health department.
Christopher told the Tracker that he stands by Gabrielle’s conduct and reporting, but noted that the outlet takes any requests for corrections seriously. He said that he had arranged a meeting with the health department and county mayor’s office and hoped to resolve the situation amicably.
Gabrielle was allowed to participate in the county’s next health department press briefing, on May 11. Donila told the Tracker that the county mayor’s office felt a one-day restriction was adequate.
“We look forward to him continuing to ask questions and we look forward to answering them,” Donila said.